Grumpy Old Fan | DC’s Pandora: not quite out of the box

Trinity of Sin: Pandora #1 (written by Ray Fawkes, drawn by Zander Cannon, Daniel Sampere, Vicente Cifuentes and Patrick Zircher) is not a terrible first issue, although it does trade on some pretty horrific images. It’s not a boring issue, although the title character’s emotional arc is essentially an 8,000-year, 20-page slow burn. For a character who so far has been a walking plot point -- and who is still advertised mostly as a plot element for the next Big Event -- the issue isn’t even that obtuse. Pandora #1 is a fairly well-executed comic book which does a decent job of humanizing its heroine, but which still hasn’t justified its own existence.

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Traditionally, the average superhero character included a strong element of wish-fulfillment. Perhaps it came simply from having powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal folk, or perhaps from the plausibility of training one’s mind and/or body to the limits of human potential. Maybe those powers, or that training, had been personally costly: a parent’s death, a home’s destruction or a tragedy that could have been prevented.

Judging by the first issue’s preview, which relates a good bit of backstory, Pandora intends to heap as much guilt as possible on its heroine. As seen therein, some 8,200 years ago she was looking for an herbal remedy for a sick child when, wandering too far from her village, she stumbled upon a three-eyed golden skull, and apparently through no action of her own, triggered it into freeing the Seven Deadly Sins of Man. I know they’re the Seven Deadly Sins a) because I read the “Shazam!” conclusion in last week’s Justice League, and these creatures have pretty much the same schtick; and b) because Pandora is supposed to interact with all corners of the DC Universe.

So right off the bat I’m thinking this isn’t a direct adaptation of the mythological Pandora, who according to Hesiod (via Wikipedia) was created by the gods as revenge for Prometheus’ theft of fire. To borrow another mythological term, she was a Trojan Horse. Bearing a jar with all the world’s evils sealed inside, Pandora was welcomed into human society by the trusting Epimetheus (who didn’t listen to his brother Prometheus) and promptly released her toxic cargo. (The only thing left sealed in the jar was Hope.) Furthermore, in early versions of the myth, Pandora was the first woman, designed by Zeus specifically to destroy the all-male utopia Prometheus and his fellows had created.

Sounds perfect for those he-man woman-haters at DC Comics, amirite? Why not just go with that? Well, the mythological Pandora’s creation -- sculpted out of earth and given specific gifts by particular gods and goddesses -- was probably a little too familiar for a straight-up adaptation.

Since Hesiod, though, others have tried to rehabilitate Pandora’s reputation, casting her as more of an innocent, or suggesting that her story is an inversion of an older myth, where a man foolishly opened a box of blessings, and lost all of them except hope. Indeed, DC’s own “origin of evil” involves Krona, an ancient Oan, attempting to look back through time at the creation of the universe.  As told by John Broome, Gil Kane and Sid Greene (in October 1965's Green Lantern vol. 2 #40), Krona did see the moment of creation -- a giant hand setting the first star cluster in motion -- but that act somehow unleashed evil in the universe. By way of cleaning up the mess their brother created, the Oans sent Krona’s disembodied consciousness hurtling through space, and decided to create an intergalactic police force.

Twenty years later, in October 1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths #7, Marv Wolfman, George Pérez and Jerry Ordway revealed that another scientist, millions of years later in a parallel universe, also tried to view the moment of creation. This time, the consequences involved freeing the Anti-Monitor and igniting the multiversal Crisis -- which, naturally, started with the scientist’s own world. Finding that the experiment had made him invulnerable, with the power to teleport to the site of any sufficiently cosmic disaster, he started calling himself Pariah and became an instant symbol of weepy emo for an entire generation of DC readers.

(Come to think of it, Pariah could easily have filled Pandora’s role in Flashpoint. He’s got loads of experience hopping through time and across realities, he’s already racked with guilt, and he’s got purple hair just like her! Makes me wonder if Pandora was created just so DC wouldn’t have to risk paying royalties to Wolfman and Pérez ...)

Anyway, Krona is still part of DC history, and for all I know Pariah is, too, although Crisis on Infinite Earths doesn’t seem to have hit the New 52 quite yet. Now comes Pandora, who with the other two would make a very reasonable trinity of sin: monomania, hubris and ... what? Curiosity?

SPOILERS FOLLOW for Pandora #1 ...




“Curiosity” it is, because right after the preview ends, Pandora is transported to the Rock of Eternity. Revisiting a scene from DC’s 2012 Free Comic Book Day issue, she’s condemned to immortality (and purple hair, and facial scars) by the wizard Shazam and sent back to Earth to wander in torment for all time. I am not mocking the return home, because Pandora does seem to have been treated rather unjustly, and because she sings her happy little song (from the first page of the issue) as she buries her family and friends. Happy little songs go a long way toward building sympathy.

Most of the rest of the issue summarizes Pandora’s journeys, as she’s cursed to walk the millennia and watch what the Seven Deadlies (unseen to everyone else) do with the world. At first she’s powerless against them, while they offer to make her their queen; but starting in the first century of the Common Era, she begins acquiring the skills that will turn her into the pistol-packing avenger we know today. Thus, instead of a Wonder Woman origin, she’s more of a Batman, albeit if Bruce Wayne had unwittingly fired the gun that killed his parents.

Ultimately, she commissions said quasi-mystic arsenal that supposedly will help her kill the Sins -- as much as you can kill what are supposed to be the sources of various human failings, I guess -- and goes after Wrath before being transported away at the last minute by Shazam. He tells her that the “Council” was wrong to condemn her (oops!), and now she is one of the few who can wield the magics in her “box” (the skull, presumably) in order to “end the curse” and stop the Sins for good. Only the extremely good or the extremely bad can operate the box, so as the issue ends, Pandora opts for the former and heads for Metropolis. Continued in Justice League #22 ...

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Were it not for Shazam’s confession, I would have questioned this series’ premise a lot more. After all, both Krona and Vandal Savage -- the latter meets Pandora in this issue, during the Crusades -- were a lot more actively “transgressive” than she was. Both started a lot earlier, too, and somehow neither cracked the all-time-sinners’ top three. “Elder error” (see also late-period Guardians of the Universe) explains that to a certain extent, but I still wonder about Shazam’s timing. It took them 8,000 years to realize they’d made a mistake? Did someone else come along in the meantime?

If this series runs long enough, we may learn the answers. However, Pandora’s ultimate goal -- and the point of the series generally -- is still a bit hard to picture. Surely she’s not going to erase all pride, envy, greed, wrath, gluttony, sloth and lust from the Earth. If I had to guess, I’d say her attempt to master the “box” is what ends up sending the Justice Leagues to who-knows-where at the end of “Trinity War.” For that matter, Pandora #1 could very well describe the Sins merely as strong (unassailable?) influences on regular people, whose good/evil tendencies would otherwise be independent of such outside forces. (That is, when the Sins aren’t commandeering the bodies of regular people for unspeakable purposes.) Accordingly, perhaps when “Trinity War” is over, Pandora might turn its full attention to Sin-hunting, with our heroine joining the New 52's growing list of hyper-competent (and in her case, well-armed) mystics.

Clearly, this first issue raises more questions than it answers, and not necessarily in a good way. At least its art teams are each paired with particular periods in Pandora’s history. For the opening and closing sequences, Zander Cannon provides layouts, Daniel Sampere pencils and Vicente Cifuentes inks; while Patrick Zircher illustrates Pandora’s walk-through-history montage. Zircher’s work is rougher than the others’, and he uses a slightly different set of perspectives, but for the most part his sequence is a series of vignettes (some just one panel), so it’s not that complicated. One might even say Zircher’s thicker, rougher lines are more indicative of Pandora’s less-formed nature, when she’s transitioning from grieving innocent to jaded crusader. Sampere and Cifuentes are both fairly representative of DC’s current clean, detailed, thin-lined house style, which is eminently appropriate for a book grounded firmly in DC cosmology.

In the end, though, I’m not sure why this is its own series and not, say, a one-shot or a series of backups in Justice League Dark or Phantom Stranger. This issue was fine -- if gratuitously violent -- for an origin story, but what happens when the Seven Deadly Sins are once again boxed up? Will Pandora fight supervillains? Will she have a secret identity or a supporting cast? Will she lurk in the background, Sandman-style, waiting to clean up the sins of various transient characters? Will her role in Flashpoint ever be explained?

The mythological Pandora was more responsible for her actions, but initially that made her more of a villain. For its Pandora, DC has doubled down on tragedy, and mixed that with a shot of righteous rage. While this Pandora is not an unsympathetic figure, neither is she quite her own person. If part of the point of Pandora is to travel around the DC Universe, those guest-star interactions risk defining her in relation to them. The aforementioned scene with Vandal Savage does that to a certain extent, and in predictable fashion (“Come pillage with me!” “Hmmph!”). Going forward, the series needs to delve deeper into Pandora’s head, not just contrast her with more familiar characters.

Again, aside from the gore, Pandora #1 isn’t especially remarkable. Its biggest achievement is making its main character sympathetic, which sounds more backhanded than it is meant to be. For those of us interested in “Trinity War,” it helps explain who she is and why she’s been roaming around the New 52 for the past couple of years. It doesn’t explain everything, which is understandable under the circumstances. Her journey is compelling on its own terms, although the plot does depend more on convenience than on character.

Nevertheless, readers probably aren’t meant to identify with Pandora, just to sympathize with her. For now (i.e., for “Trinity War”) that may be enough. In the long run, though, the book will need more. I could see Pandora becoming an entertaining series, in a pulp-hero-fights-ancient-evils kind of way. However, Pandora will need a lot of work to make that happen.

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